Why Buddy Matters, Chapter 1: Memento Mori

Buddy Holly taught me how to mourn.

When I was 15, my father—who grew up in the 1940s and ’50s—introduced me to the music of Buddy Holly. All I knew about Buddy was from the execrable film The Buddy Holly Story, which I had seen on cable a couple of times years before. The only thing I remember from it is that the singer was killed in a plane crash at the age of 22.

I didn’t remember any songs from the movie, and I had merely a passing familiarity with “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” from the oldies stations’ rotation of 1950s rock ’n’ roll. I loved Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” But Buddy Holly? He never really entered my radar until I got the soundtrack for the 1983 movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine.

I was a huge fan of Stephen King, and the 1950s songs from “Bony Maronie” to “Keep A-Knockin’” to “I Wonder Why” had me listening almost exclusively to pre-1960 rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues. But nothing, no song on that record or maybe on any record I had heard before then, got into my brain like “Not Fade Away.”

I didn’t know then what “uptempo” or “downtempo” meant in rock nomenclature at 14, but Stephen King and John Carpenter (and his music producer, Alan Howarth) had conspired to expose me to one of the few perfect downtempo songs in modern music. I listened to Buddy, singing in perfect time with the “bop-bops” laid down by [COUPLE], and I heard his heart.

My Dad was always regaling me with stories of the 1950s, its cars, and its freedom (if you were a white male, anyway). I told him that I had gotten really into this song by Buddy Holly—was he familiar with him? Yes, it turned out he was familiar with this oh-so-obscure recording artist. Who knew! (I was 14, okay?)

My Dad was not much of one for the shopping mall, but he braved it shortly after. I didn’t know what was up, but we went into a record store—that industry soon to die but be resurrected as something cooler than ever, much like Buddy himself—and Dad showed me that there was so much more Buddy Holly to hear! He bought the tape for me and said I’d like it. He was almost always right when he said that, and it didn’t matter if he cared much for that particular thing himself. So he wasn’t necessarily a Buddy Holly enthusiast, but somehow he knew I would be.

He was right, of course.

I was a ridiculously lovesick young teenager, probably not much different from any teenager in the world in that regard, except that I listened almost exclusively to old music. I pined for my love interest of the week and listened to jump ’n’ jive music of everyone from Benny Goodman to the early Beatles. But there were no songs, no music, that showed understanding of the turbulent beat of my romantic heart.

Maybe Dad knew that, bemused at the emotional turmoil of his curly-haired pubescent son. Maybe he knew that when I got into something, I got into it, and he thought this would be an enjoyable thing to get into.

No matter what Dad’s intentions, when I first popped that cassette tape of greatest hits into my Walkman knock-off in 1984 and listened for the first time to “True Love Ways” and “Learning the Game” and “Dearest” and “Oh, Boy!” my life was changed. I bonded instantly with that voice, those songs, and that singer who died so very young. (Although at 15, I viewed 22 as unimaginably far off.)  

I had to know more—the music, the beautiful music, that pure voice with the slightest Texas twang, demanded I know more—so I found and read library books on early rock, gleaning a bit of information here and there before the text moved on to talk more about Elvis.

More illuminating were microfiched magazine articles that told the Buddy Holly story. I learned of his journey through Lubbock, Clovis, New York, and Clear Lake. I read all I could find about The Crickets, about J.I, about Joe B., about Niki. I learned of his musical progression from Elvis-like rocker to the creator and singer of the most lovely songs I have, to this day, ever heard. (I knew nothing of his country-picker beginnings back then.)

And, of course, there was much, so much, to read about the Rube Goldberg–esque chain of events that put him on that plane in 1959. This led to that led to that led to that: breaking with Petty and moving to New York made money scarce; the Winter Dance Party asked him to join, which would pay good money fast; he wanted to get some rest—and this version is greatly simplified, as Holly fans know all too well.

The more information I absorbed, the more I craved. All of this new biographical knowledge deepened my bond with Buddy, and my desire to hear every song in his catalog intensified.

In the mid-1980s, all one could do was try to find compilations on LP or cassette that had even a few Buddy songs on it that you didn’t already have. (Needless to say, running across 1983’s For the First Time Anywhere—which I didn’t know existed until I spotted it in a record store until 1985—made me feel like Indiana Jones discovering the Lost Ark.)

In 1986, I bought what was at that time the sine qua non of Buddy Holly music compilations, the six-LP set The Complete Buddy Holly. I puzzled over the low-fidelity cornpone recordings of Buddy with Bob Montgomery, not understanding a thing about Buddy’s musical origins or what Bob, Larry Welborn, Hi-Tops Duncan, or even Norman Petty had to do with the music I loved. (Other than Petty, who I saw as the villain of the piece) even their names were new to me.) I didn’t know Decca from Brunswick from Coral. All I knew was the music—and, in time, my 1960s-overdub–trained mind came to love the “new” undubbed versions, even if I didn’t understand why there was more than one version. (I blame it on being 17.)

But it wasn’t just Buddy’s music, even then.

It was Buddy himself.

The last LP of the box set was titled “… and on to New York.” I knew what this meant—it was the last hurrah of Buddy Holly. It was his final step from county fairs and supermarket openings to true fame and sophistication, musical and otherwise. I didn’t know back then what “dramatic irony” was, but I felt it all the same. I knew Buddy would die when he went on that tour and got on that plane. You knew it. It was the one thing that anyone who knew anything about the singer of “That’ll Be the Day” knew.

His lightness as he sang everything from “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” to “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” reflected a melancholy echo heard only in our minds. I’m a novelist now, a professional storyteller, and I can tell you that this sadness listening to his joy while he crooned in Clovis the very definition of dramatic irony. The term means that the audience knows something the person in question doesn’t. Death lurked in those brilliant recordings, the whole Buddy Holly story was ironic in a second way: if Buddy and Petty hadn’t been so brilliant, Buddy would’ve been laying tile with his brother Larry in Lubbock instead of headlining the Winter Dance Party.

Those old enough in 1959 to know the performers’ names would forever link Buddy (and Ritchie and Jape) with the extinguishing of the brightest stars. The fans of the day, of course, felt the loss immediately and bitterly after loving them and their music before the crash. A glass almost deliriously full for the performers’ fans shattered that day, leaving it not just empty, but broken for good.

I’m not one of those for whom the Three Stars had ever been alive. I was born on February 5, 1969, ten years and two days after The Day the Music Died. (And ten years to the day after Buddy returned to Lubbock for the last time.) All of us too young or not-yet around in 1959 were to learn about Buddy’s unlucky, extraordinarily untimely death hand in glove with discovering his music. Tragedy, irony, and the lightness and energy on every one of Buddy Holly’s recordings were not only linked in my generation’s minds—they were one and the same. To listen to his songs was to peer up at a flawless blue sky ringed with dark clouds. The imminence, the immanence, of death would never let you forget what awaited him after Clear Lake, Iowa.

To listen to Buddy Holly is to engage in a danse macabre. The danse macabre—dancing in the presence of death—is traditionally performed as a memento mori, a reminder that death is always a hair’s breadth away.

This danse with Buddy Holly is how I learned what mourning was, something I would need sooner, and for much longer, than I thought.

I didn’t know Elizabeth Kubler Ross from Betsy Ross back then. But, 15 years old and lying in my twin bed with my foam headphones on, in the apartment my mother rented after kicking my dad out and selling the house, I experienced almost every one of her stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression … everything but acceptance.

I couldn’t believe he was gone. He was so … present. He felt so bright on his records. So vital. So … well,  alive. This man died a decade before I was born, yet I felt this loss so keenly that I denied its truth. The teen years are full of denial of a whole lot of things: one’s parents as sexual beings, the tendency for expenses to expand to eat up all available income, that tomorrow may not be as good, let alone better, as today. It was no big step to deny, at least fleetingly, that Buddy Holly could actually be gone. Like 99 percent of teenagers, I treated death as something that could safely be denied. At least my own. Obviously, people of any age died every minute of every day, but what had that to do with me? With the people I loved? With Buddy Holly, whose voice I heard more than anyone else’s, almost every single day?

Denial can only last so long, especially when you know it’s futile and kind of sad. But then the anger that rushed in! I hated Roger Peterson—why the hell was he flying a plane in the middle of a frozen pitch-black night when he was barely qualified to fly at noon on a cloudless summer day?

(This was before I understood real compassion. Years after my shamefully callous youth, I read Ella Holley’s heartbreaking, selfless letter of sympathy sent to Peterson’s mother just days after the crash:

We are crushed by this terrible tragedy and the loss of our son, and we know you are suffering the same. We have never known before the grief and suffering from the death of a loved one but we do know now, and our hearts go out to you because we know what you are going through. We will keep you in our prayers.

Now I know Peterson was as much a victim as the Three Stars, and I am not angry at him anymore. Thank you, Mrs. Holley.)

And Norman Petty—that greedy son of a bitch! This anger was based on the reading I did that accused the producer of trying to “starve” Buddy, which forced the performer to hitch his wagon with the doomed Winter Dance Party. You killed Buddy Holly, Petty! (This was before I knew the story of Buddy and the Crickets’ meteoric rise under the protective wing of his production expertise. Now I know that Petty did some unethical things, but he was less shady and infinitely more talented than most music producers of the time, and I am not angry anymore.)

I didn’t know enough to have many more targets of my anger about Buddy Holly’s death, and I am glad, indeed. A million things had to fall just right—or, in this case, wrong—for the crash to happen, and no one intended for Buddy or Ritchie or Jape or Roger to leave this world. It just happened. As it ever was, there is nothing anger can do to help.

Anger, when not fed, will wither and die. My fury at Roger Peterson or Norman Petty or anyone else who might have inadvertently contributed to the fate of my favorite singer, my favorite person I had never met, wasn’t ever particularly well nourished in the first place. But at the time, to paraphrase Wanda Jackson: Hot dog, they made me mad.

Then, when I was 21, just 18 months younger than Buddy was at the time of the crash, my father suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. He was 56.

It was so sudden, a plane crashing in darkness. I had seen him just four days earlier, when I went to his place for our weekly breakfast together. Now I can’t think of that meal—and my Dad telling me he was proud of me for the first time since I was an adult—without the shadow of dramatic irony floating through the sky.

He was comatose in the hospital for a while, and the doctors told us without equivocation that my Dad was never going to recover. There was nothing they could do.

That’s when the denial started, before he was even officially dead. There had to be something they could do—he responded to my voice, moved his toes when I asked him to move them if he could hear me. (My sister and I told him we loved him, and he moved his toes again. How could the doctors not save him? They were going to be able to save him. It would be difficult, but the doctors would find a way.

The bargaining began soon after he was laid to rest. I begged and I pleaded and I cried.

Anger then bloomed, at the doctors for not saving him, at my mother for turning him away and making him sad, at my Dad himself for drinking and smoking his way through life.

Depression, which had always marbled itself through my life anyway, found a home inside me as I lost my job—the one my Dad told me he was so proud of me for succeeding at—because I had started just staying on the couch at home, staring at the ceiling instead of going to work. My Dad, the one who had shared his joys with me, the one who introduced me to Buddy Holly, the one who was my most forgiving and stalwart friend in life … without him, what was really the point?

The depression (over that, anyway) lifted to allow acceptance into my heart. And I did accept it—what choice did I have—but only the fact of his being dead. I did not accept his dying. It was absurd that the closest person in my life, who had always been that to me, would be there frying up some ham and eggs and laughing with me one day and a couple of days later be gone. They say “passed on,” but he wasn’t supposed to die, not yet, not while he was so fervently loved. He would never have passed on and left our love behind.

That was the part I couldn’t accept, and to my own dying day I guess I’ll never accept: not that he was dead, I understood and accepted that, but that the universe made him die.

It was years before I saw my mourning over my father as related to my love of Buddy Holly, except of course that he was the one who got me hooked. But my breathing would stutter and my eyes would sting whenever I saw a ’57 Bel-Air or a ’58 Oldsmobile 88; whenever I listened to a big-band song of the 1940s; whenever I saw a Wurlitzer at a retro diner, even though I already knew those jukeboxes’ rounded curves and mesmerizing bubbles were really a relic of 1940s swing. Dad loved swing, and I loved swing, so it was perfect, whether it was rock ‘n’ roll or not.

But eventually, I made the connection. Since I was 14, I had mourned for Buddy every time I played his music. Buddy Holly taught me the meaning of never. Dad taught me its power. They both helped me understand the world and its joys as well as its vast heartaches.

Of course, there are many differences in Buddy Holly being gone and my Dad being gone, the biggest of which may be that, while I have literally hundreds of recordings of Buddy that I listen to every day, I don’t possess a single recording of my father’s voice. There’s no video or surviving home movies. My mother threw away almost every picture of him. He remains in my memory alone—his voice, his face, his sad eyes—and I worry that, as I age, those memories will fade away before my life does.

You know my love’s bigger than a Cadillac, Dad. My memory problems may well steal from me the smell of your Hai Karate (yes) aftershave, the feel of your rough whiskers when I kissed you goodnight, the tone of your voice when you tried to understand your weird but loving son. My love will not<—>will never<—>fade away.

Buddy taught me how to mourn, it’s true. But he also taught me how to celebrate a life, how to danse to its music and the love it leaves behind.

Next: The story of Buddy Holly >>

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